Knowledge Share

A paradigm shift in counseling philosophy

R. Rocco Cottone September 1, 2013

ChangeWe are so lucky to be alive in the midst of a paradigm shift in counseling theory. For someone like me, who fancies himself a counseling philosopher and theoretician, nothing can be more exciting than living through a revolution in theory.

Many currently practicing counselors probably were a bit young to take part in the last paradigm shift, from the psychology of the individual to what is called “social systems theory.” That shift occurred from the 1950s through the 1980s. I was able to become involved only at the tail end of that movement (with publication of an article, “A Systemic Theory of Vocational Rehabilitation,” in 1987).

We are now in the middle of another shift of counseling philosophy that has potential to become a major theoretical movement in the field. This movement is postmodern at its foundation, meaning it is more about relationships than individuals, and it is best represented in what has been defined as the “social constructivism” paradigm of counseling and psychotherapy.


Counseling theory has matured from its early focus on individuals, represented in the classic psychology-aligned theories of counseling such as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, person-centered therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, behavior therapy and others. Next came a focus on relationship structures in classic systemic therapies such as structural family therapy or strategic family therapy. Now there is an evolving focus on the social consensualizing of problems and solutions. This appears to be occurring in emerging therapies such as solution-focused therapy and narrative therapy, which are social constructivist in their underpinnings.

The focus of each of these three movements (psychological, systemic-relational and social constructivist) is supported by a unique philosophical foundation with professional and political implications. Philosophical, professional and political factors help to establish each movement as a counseling paradigm. As I describe in my 2012 book, Paradigms of Counseling and Psychotherapy, counseling paradigms are overarching philosophical, theoretical and political structures that act to categorize counseling theories accordingly. Paradigms are “super theories,” so to speak. The paradigm framework represents a theory about theories of counseling. It is metatheoretical to the variation of theories within and across paradigm frameworks. It’s the big picture.

How does all this talk about metatheory relate to counseling practice? Well, it means that counseling has matured as a profession. Counselors now can be guided by large theoretical frameworks as they apply specific theories to practice. For example, the approach used by many counselors in a college counseling center likely will be quite different from the approach used by most counselors working at a family service agency. The college counseling center likely operates primarily from the psychological paradigm, and its counselors will accordingly apply theories that address individual problems as a focus of treatment. The family services agency likely operates primarily from the systemic-relational paradigm, and its counselors will accordingly apply theories that treat problems between and among people, following social systems theory’s emphasis on relationships. So, one’s setting and one’s practice may largely affect one’s style of practice.

Systems theory was revolutionary in redefining mental health issues as being embedded in social relationship systems — not in individuals and not specific to one person. A social relationship is between people, not inside them. Systems theory is a complex theory that helps counselors understand, label and treat interactions. So, a person’s problems are always assessed within the context of significant relationships. Relationships are viewed as real and treatable structures.

Systemic-relational counselors tend to do couples or family counseling as primary treatments. Individual counseling would be less adept at defining and addressing the myriad of interpersonal issues that influence an individual’s mental health. So, shifting one’s philosophy — from the psychology of the individual to a focus on relationships — has a major effect on one’s choice of treatment.

The problem with systems

But systems theory has had its heyday, and its limitations are now well understood. Its reliance on a circular causal model, meaning that problems are viewed as caused in cyclical patterns of interaction, and its stance that individuals are not the locus of pathology left it vulnerable to criticism by feminist theorists and social justice advocates. The reason: The circular model of causality prevents a definition of individual blame, when in some cases, individual blame is hard to deny (for example, a perpetrator’s sexual abuse of an infant).

Criticisms of systems theory addressed the concern that circular causality could be, in effect, victim blaming — meaning that victims could be implicated in their own abuse by a circular causal model of blame. Should an infant be in any way viewed as responsible for its own abuse in some circular causal framework? Should a woman be blamed if she is unable to assert her needs in the context of a male-dominated society? Obviously, the circular causal framework is unacceptable in specific and identifiable contexts, and credible criticism of systemic tenets led to a serious crisis in the field theoretically.

The social constructivism movement in counseling has emerged as a framework that addresses the limits of the prior paradigms. It also provides counselors with a new and unique framework from which to work.

Defining a new movement

First, a few terms need to be defined because confusion exists in the field about terminology related to the emergence of this new paradigm. People often use terms such as constructivism or constructionism to represent what I call the social constructivism paradigm. But there is an important difference between initial conceptualizations of constructivism and the very radical way that the term social constructivism can be defined.

The radical definition, which derives primarily from the works of Kenneth Gergen and Humberto Maturana, implies that there is no psychology of the individual. Rather, all behavior is viewed as a relationship between biological organisms in a social medium. Mind is not in the head; it is in the social matrix. All thoughts, all words and all concepts such as free will and individual choice are communicated by others and reflect one’s cultural context rather than one’s individual psychology.

As I describe in my Social Constructivism Model of Ethical Decision-Making, there is no individual choice — choice is socially constructed. There is no free will because free will is a culturally loaded term consistent with Western cultural bias toward autonomous decision-making (as pervasively portrayed in the Western ideal of the maverick, the rogue and the lone hero acting against prevailing wisdom). There is no individual moral conscience. Rather, there is a collective conscience or collective ethic (as in the ACA Code of Ethics).

Some people will label (mistakenly in my view) classical psychological theories as constructivist. For instance, some say Adlerian theory is constructivist, and Albert Ellis labeled his own theory as constructivist at the end of his career. A radical social constructivist would argue that those theories are highly cognitively based psychological theories that address social issues. If a theory purports that there is a mind in the head weighing social data, it is not a social constructivism theory in its radical sense. Mind is redefined as the relationship between the neurological system and the social-linguistic system within which it is enmeshed. Mind is not a thing — it is a relationship.

With a radical social constructivist perspective, the psychology of the individual disappears. This perspective cannot be reconciled with an individual psychology. We recognize, for example, Alfred Adler’s place in the history of psychotherapy. His historical place is well preserved, as he was the first to acknowledge the very powerful effect of social factors on the individual psyche. The name of his approach — individual psychology — makes his theory’s paradigm alignment very clear (the psychological paradigm). And Ellis was a cognitive theorist, bar none, who never fully reconciled the idea of a relational worldview to an individual worldview, as he maintained the idea of the primacy of cognition.

The radical social constructivism perspective purports that everything that is understood is understood through relationships. People are wired (literally physically constructed) to come to agreement about their shared experience. This is what I defined as consensualizing, which is a foundational concept to the social constructivism paradigm as I described it in Paradigms of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Truths are known only through sharing experiences in a language medium that represents a cultural context. (This idea comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher who argued that there is no private language; rather, language is a social convention.) Accordingly, truths are “absolute” only within a community of believers.

Consensualities [also known as bracketed absolute truths]

Absolute truth emerging from relationships was a concept that became clear to me only after I applied it to the study of religion, which led to my 2011 book, Toward a Positive Psychology of Religion: Belief Science in the Postmodern Era. Each religion represents a consensuality, a socially constructed truth that is held as absolute by believers. Ironically, such a truth looks relative to outsiders. So, Christians believe Jesus is God, Buddhists believe Buddha’s teachings represent truth, Muslims believe Muhammad’s prophecies hold weight, and Jews hold fast to the teachings of the Jewish prophets. But people outside of these traditions may have different ways of understanding or explaining religious experience.

Some might argue (I think mistakenly) that this philosophy represents a sort of moral relativism, but within a group, the beliefs of members are not relative at all — they are viewed as indisputable moral standards. One must leave the group to see beliefs as relative, and then only from another absolutist perspective. So, social constructivism takes philosophy off of the absolute-relative continuum and places understanding in a third or triadic position called bracketed absolute truth — where absolute truth is housed among communities of believers.

What looks real to individuals in a community may hold less weight with people outside of that community. So, essentially, people in relationships are faced with sometimes mutually exclusive truths — and this is where counseling is important. The social constructivism paradigm proposes that problems reside in conflicting consensualities — competitive truths — that affect relationship systems.

To provide an example, for a teenager and his buddies who smoke marijuana, smoking pot is fun, exciting, stimulating and, arguably, not that harmful. But to his drug prohibitionist family, marijuana is dangerous, has the potential of connecting the teenager to the illegal drug culture and will negatively affect his physiology and motivation. There is a clash of truths bracketed by the consensus of the competing communities (consensualities), and a counselor is faced with helping involved parties navigate through this clash.

Accordingly, competing or mutually exclusive consensualities (bracketed absolute truths) are at the root of problems. Understanding the concept of consensualities is the key to understanding the radical social constructivist approach that is representative of a paradigm shift in the counseling field.

Counselors aligned with the social constructivism paradigm will act quite differently from counselors aligned with other paradigms of counseling and psychotherapy. Rather than treating individuals (as a psychological paradigm adherent would likely do) or treating defined and bounded social systems (as a systemic-relational paradigm adherent would likely do), a social constructivist counselor would first identify relationships of influence around an issue defined as pertinent to counseling. Levels of agreement or disagreement around the issue would be explored. Stakeholders would be identified. Any disagreement would be representative of a potential clash of consensualities, which would then become the target for intervention. Social constructivist counselors would be adept at building new common experiences around which agreement could be reached, leading to healthier interaction.

For example, a young adult has found a home in a college art department and is choosing a degree in art. This goes against the wishes of beloved family members, who are steadfast in arguing for a career in a medical field. Thus, the young adult is faced with a clash of consensualities. The counselor involved with treating the young adult in the context of family counseling could attempt to build on the common experiences of family members, or help to create common experiences, which could lead to some reconciliation.

Collaboratively defined solutions might be involved in defining acceptable options. For instance, perhaps a career in medical illustration could be explored. This might mean that the counselor educates all parties and attempts to define new possibilities with the involvement of all parties. This style of therapy is evident in some contemporary counseling approaches, most notably solution-focused therapy and narrative therapy, that in practice use techniques consistent with social constructivist ideals.

Social constructivism: A nice fit for counseling

Social constructivism ideals address the limitations of the other paradigms. Counselors are no longer bound to the concept of individual responsibility and blame (as in the psychological paradigm) or the conception of circular cause (as in the systemic-relational paradigm). Rather, the cause of problems can be consensualized to be either linear and individual or circular and relational. Treatment would differ depending on the understanding of participants about the nature of a problem and the collaboratively and consensually defined approach to a solution.  

Social constructivism, much like feminist theory and the social justice movement, acknowledges the role of culture in human problems. It fits nicely with counseling’s multicultural foundation. It is positive in its premise that problems reside and can be addressed within interpersonal disagreement, which may be more accessible to treatment than deep-seated intrapersonal conflict or social systems in which boundaries of influence may be diffuse. And the social constructivism paradigm fits the underlying philosophy of counseling as a profession — a diversity-embracing, inclusive and health-enhancing profession.

Yes, we are lucky to be alive at this stage in counseling’s development.

Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

R. Rocco Cottone is professor and coordinator of doctoral programs in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Contact him at

Letters to the editor:



  1. Terence Bnu

    Well said. A counselor with this paradigm is what I call counselor as mediator . The need for a counselor or mediator to uderstand one’s own consensualities becomes clear through this paradigm: And it seems that it may enable one to find comfort in diversity. That said, do you think it possible for a “maverick” to have a unique perspective? Or does this paradigm not recognize that each point in mind has a unique location, genetic code, and history, and thus somewhat of a unique perspective? Instead, is there always a subset of people who see things the same way?

  2. R. Rocco Cottone

    Hi Terence: Your question is a good one. I probably would have asked something similar before I fully understood the radical social constructivism perspective. In the past, I tried to hold on tightly to the concept of a unique psychological self. But the radical social constructivism response to your question would be something like this: The question itself shows you are steeped in Western cultural tradition, as ideas such as maverick, unique, and “point in mind,” all reflect your culture speaking through you. Radical social constructivism posits that each individual is simply a biological conduit for the transmission of socially derived data. It takes at least two people to construct a consensuality–at least two. One cannot construct a consensuality alone, because there is no private language (Wittgenstein), so when language is involved, it always reflects the relationships within which one is enmeshed. One cannot escape one’s social-linguistic tradition with language. So any concepts of self, free will, uniqueness, or freedom all reflect a cultural heritage where such values are defined and discerned socially through interaction with others. Radical social constructivism holds that we know things only through our relationships with others. I hope this helps. Quite frankly it took me a long time and many years of study to recongnize this point-of-view. Best wishes, Rock

    1. Laurie Cannon

      I am, but a student. I’ve several years behind and in front of me. My end all goal is to teach and have learned one must or should experience the full gamut to do so. I do also hope to open a small private practice and volunteer as needed. It is writing such as this article which relays changes to the profession which concerns me; are the educational standards truly keeping up with what is being taught?

  3. Barry McCosh

    I agree in some respects with the theory of raical social constructivism, I do however beleive that many other influences will impact and drive an individuals behaviour. Cultural and social/environmental influences are two of the relationship groups to acknowledge, family is another. We can’t rule out genetic influences as a contributing factor in individual behaviours as evidenced by studies with multiple birth individuals have shown. Our experience also demonstrates that most individuals place their own self at te centre of all their interactions and perceptions of relationships and encounters within others is very much influenced by their own world view. The above article is a very interesting read and tere is much to learn about this theory.

  4. T.A. Even

    Thank you for this primer on radical social constructivism. I was given the label of “Constructivist Adlerian” by an Adlerian much wiser than me who shared my enthusiasm for integrating post-modern ideas and practices with the depth of an Adlerian way of being and understanding. Your well-delivered commentary and criticism here leaves me open to learning more about this model and its place in conversation about social constructivism. I have understood that this evolution in Adlerian work itself resulted from the exchange of ideas through dialogue about Adler, the theoretical goodness-of-fit with post-modern times, and what early Adlerians might have actually understood well before their time. In other words, isn’t “Constructivst Adlerian” as a model itself the result of social constructivist dialogue?

    Another question I have for you concerns the “radical” nature of this paradigm and the implication that this radical model is THE way forward. In that term I find an absolute that is potentially divisive and at-odds with other shared realities and deep-seated “truth” about how and why we do what we do. By definition, it seems that radical social constructivist counselors would actively participate in dialogue within professional community relationships rather than dismiss competing ideas as outdated or incomplete. Perhaps this is the point you are wanting to make, that, as a profession, the way forward is to expand our dialogue, enlarge our understanding, and reach for greater levels of agreement within the community with which we are all a part?

    Thank you for reading my initial reaction to your article. I am certain that I will learn from any response you are willing to give.

  5. R. Rocco Cottone

    I have read with great interest Adler’s work, primarily due to the works of, and past discussions with, some good friends, Matthew Lemberger and Richard Watts. We’ve had some lively discussions. And I think my friends would agree that we operate in different, but equally valid consensualities. I have tried to reconcile Adler’s works to the radical social constructivist position, to no avail. Adler speaks of a psyche. He talks about goal fixing early in childhood (when social influences are limited). His “individual psychology begins and ends with the problem of inferiority” (The Science of Living), which is a psychological complex. To his credit, he does purport that social involvement is the “salvation” of the individual, especially an individual with a malfunctioning psyche, which does make his “Individual Psychology” the most socially sensitive of the theories of his day. By the paradigms framework defined in my paradigms book, however, he clearly is best classified as part of the psychological paradigm.

    Few contemporary Adlerians appear to acknowledge his grounding theoretical premises. I often find Adlerians quoting other Adlerians, with few quotes directly from Adler. It may be that his theory has evolved into something that he may or may not have intended. It also may be that Adler was so ahead of his time that he held to constructivist ideals before the concepts were fully developed and before such ideas could be clearly articulated. Also, there are schools of constructivism that purport an agentic self, and Adler seems to fit more closely to those schools than the radical social constructivism that I espouse.

    My ideas in no way impugn Adler’s theory. His place in the history of psychotherapy is well preseved, as, from my perspective, he was the first theorist to fully appreciate the influence of others on psychological functioning (excepting perhaps Freud’s seduction hypthesis, which Freud ultimately rejected). Any theory that purports anything close to an agentic self (Bandura’s term) is counter to radical social constructivism, Self exists in radical social constructivist when others distinguish the concept and then apply it to the behavior of others–it’s not a concretized internalized concept–it’s a consensualized concept. So there is a place for self in constructivist thought–but it first must be distinguished in relationships.

    I have tried to build a framework that is acknowledging of biology (by using Maturana’s biology of cognition) and non-self oriented constructivist ideas (specifically the works of Gergen). So the radical social constructivism position is very bio-social, but psychology disappears into the social web. It is a fully relational philosophy, so even when we look at a person, we redefine the person as a biological relationship between two genetic pools–one is literally defined as one’s parents’ biological relationship. One is a genetic conduit within a social relational medium. It’s a really different way to view people and their problems. I try to describe this in my book, Toward a Positive Psychology of Religion, which lays out the biological-social argument in the early and last chapters. So aside from the religious content in that book, I’ve been told it works well as a primer on the radical social constructivism I have described here.
    It was hard for me to get this extreme position–it took years–but since I got it, it’s been hard to go back to psychological ways of thinking. But the social constructivism position is very humble, because it claims only that it is one way to view human behavior among many, which people can agree to or not. It can’t claim universality or it theoretically collapses on itself. So it is one truth amonth many–a truth, not “the truth.”

    Your questions and comments are insightful, and I hope I have been able to respond in a way that is clear.

  6. Richard Walla, M.A., LPC-I

    I read this with my own view of the political implications of “social constructionism” as code for “communism” and the destruction of the individual. Then I considered that my counseling approach tends to resemble Solution Focused, which some term “constructivism”. “Blaming” society and relationships as the source of what an individual experiences does not relieve the individual of experiencing those irrational thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. As a counselor, I cannot treat a “society”, I treat individuals, each with their own set of viewpoints, and all based on common learning misinterpretations of their unique social events. The individual brain was effected on a neurological level due to social and relationship interpretations in a variety of brain-developmental stages.

    The idea that there is no individual “mind” suggest there cannot be an individual “society” to cause emotional issues, since society can only be made of individuals. Statistically this is true since there is no statistical analysis of a single object.

    So I disagree with you paradigm-shift hypothesis, and suggest it is solely your paradigm-shift, and not as global as you might perceive based on your social environment and individual experiences.

    Thanks, though, for sharing your philosophical insights.

  7. Hugh

    I Don’t mean any disrespect, but although I believe I understand what you are looking at- been looking at it myself for a long time- I think you have allowed the words to define the dynamics a bit too much.
    Just for example, if you require the use of a term such as “competitive truth”, then you have lost all sense of meaning of the words; you have achieved a “Literal Relativism”.
    Likewise, your suggestion that mind is only a construct of social interaction, that individuals do not have mind, smacks of far more than an honest paradigm shift. I would worry about telling people that they don’t have any agency of their own in their own lives, which is a fairly clear outcome of this idea.
    Perhaps worse is that you seem to have stopped theorizing at a point that you are satisfied with: The Words. Your clear fascination with the words has clouded the analysis to the point that the actual, real-world truth is competing with your bracketed absolute truth. However, I believe that if you use your new paradigm to analyze what you have concluded here, a bigger picture will become clear.
    I would go so far as to say that it is important to your readers that you do so.


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